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Sweet Prospects

The Kingdom’s up-and-coming palm sugar industry has the world at its feet

By Philip Heijmans
The sugar palm is a national symbol for Cambodia. Harvested by the country’s poor for centuries, no part of the palm tree goes to waste in a process that fashions the tree into a range of products. The durable and strong leaves are weaved into baskets, the sap is collected and processed into a nutritious sugar and, to this day, villagers from local communities come together to use the wood from the tree’s bark to build homes for families in need.

Photo by Roger Spooner.
Hubble bubble: a Confirel laboratory assistant inspects a palm sugar concoction

 
Given palm sugar’s usefulness, it did not take long for businessmen and agriculture experts to see the potential of the product. Following Cambodia’s accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2004, palm sugar grown in Kampong Speu province was awarded Geographic Indicator status in 2010, putting it on the shortlist of the world’s best quality goods.
Though palm sugar is grown in other countries such as Ethiopia, India, Indonesia and Tanzania, sugar experts have said that because of its taste and vast amount of nutrients Cambodian-grown palm sugar has the potential to become the champagne of sugars. However, Cambodia’s palm sugar industry remains in its infancy.
“People keep on saying that palm sugar is our national symbol, but do nothing to show it and to let the world know about it,” said Dr Hay Ly Eang, CEO of Confirel, Cambodia’s largest palm sugar producer.
Although a few firms sell small quantities of palm sugar locally, only Confirel has found a home for it in international markets, such as the United States and Europe, while also offering a range of other palm sugar-based products including wine, whisky, vinegar, handicrafts, candies and champagne.
“‘What does it take for the sugar palm tree to be the national symbol?’ That is the question from which this company exists,” Hay said. “Because the sugar tree is the tree of the poor, to be able to make something more out of it has been my inspiration.”
Photo by Roger Spooner.
Boy in blue: René van Slooten of PUM at the Confirel plant in Cambodia

Established in 2001, Confirel now uses more than 2,000 sugar palm trees in Kampong Speu to generate about ten tonnes of sugar for its products each year. With only a small percentage of Cambodia’s three million sugar palms being exploited commercially, Confirel is eager to explore the potential of these trees, which can take up to two decades to grow and thus produce an expensive niche product for special applications.
However, the process of harvesting palm sugar is arduous and sometimes deadly, as farmers have to scale towering trees as high as 30 metres in order to collect the sweet palm resin used to make sugar. This hurdle is hindering the production of palm sugar on a larger scale and affecting its ability to compete with other sugars in terms of cost.
“It’s in the beginning stages of development. [Palm sugar] is a very nice aromatic sugar, but it cannot compete with other sugars right now because it is very expensive and labour intensive,” said René van Slooten, a Dutch national with 46 years of expertise in sugar production.
As part of a three-week mission for PUM – a non-profit organisation funded by the Dutch government that provides senior expertise to businesses in developing countries for free – Van Slooten helped Hay develop the potential of his products. He said that while production costs remain high at $4-5 per kilogram, palm sugar will never be able to compete with the more commonly used cane sugar, which comes in at only $1 per kilogram.
“It’s a natural product that’s much more expensive… it will require a niche market to begin with,” Van Slooten said.
Nevertheless, he added that if Cambodia’s palm sugar industry can find the right mixture of preservatives, and more efficient harvesting and production practices, the sky is the limit.
“Palm sugar has a very nice taste for a range of products, like coffee and tea, and a nice aroma in chocolates and sweets,” he said. “Cambodia is one of the few palm sugar distributors in the world and has a better quality than in other producing countries like Indonesia. There is good potential here.”
 
 
 

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